Topic: College of Fine Arts
March 28, 2016
There isn't much Bill Jenkins wouldn't do for the Department of Theatre and Dance. Take, for example, his gender-bending turn as Edna Turnblad in the department’s production of the musical "Hairspray," which runs Friday through April 10 in University Theatre.
"I love these kids," Jenkins said. Donning the housecoat he wears for the role as the heroine’s eccentric mother, he deadpans in wig and padded bosom, "I try to be like a second dad."
As the department’s chairperson, Jenkins manages with wit and ingenuity to balance his role as professor and mentor with his administrative responsibilities.
His advocacy for the program has earned him the university's 2015 Outstanding Administrator Award. "It’s a real honor," Jenkins said, "because it comes from colleagues I admire and respect so much."
More than a decade of growth
In Jenkins' 13 years as department chair, enrollment in theater and dance programs has nearly doubled.
The growth can be traced to a string of successes that have transpired during his tenure, including increased funding for student scholarships and immersive learning projects; implementing three bachelor’s of fine arts—one each in acting, dance and musical theater; improving the senior talent showcases; and fostering relationships with faculty he’s hired such as Sutton Foster, the Tony Award-winning actress who teaches cabaret classes at Ball State.
With all the changes he’s brought about, Jenkins has become known for being a leader who’s as well-liked as he is respected—something many administrators understand is no easy feat.
"Bill’s personality is great, but I think the real reason he’s so good at what he does is that he’s such a go-getter," said Bob Kvam, dean of the College of Fine Arts.
'He took a chance on me'
While he's comfortable today as departmental chair, Jenkins came into the role an underdog.
"Dean Kvam took a chance on me, and I owe him my career," he said.
After earning his bachelor’s in acting ('95) and master’s in speech communications ('96) from Ball State, Jenkins earned a master of fine arts in directing from Illinois State University. A teaching stint at the University of North Dakota followed. In 2000, he interviewed for an open position in his alma mater’s Department of Theatre and Dance.
"It's been fun seeing Bill go from department chair by day to actor by night. He's like a totally different person when he takes the stage."
— Brian Morgan
"I was young to be coming into a program as big as Ball State's, but people here knew me, including former department chair Don LaCasse, and that helped me land the job."
Fast-forward a few years and Jenkins, then a 29-year-old, untenured assistant professor, was hired in 2003 as its youngest chairperson.
"It was a highly unusual appointment, I’ll admit, but it’s been a terrific one," Kvam said. "Once people overcame the idea that a junior faculty member couldn’t lead the department, they saw the potential in Bill."
Jenkins' vision contributes to department’s growth
When Jenkins took the job, the department was modest—about 250 majors—and had yet to be nationally recognized the way he wanted it to be.
He rolled up his sleeves and got to work, instituting a facultywide retreat to brainstorm department goals, establishing a student grade point average policy and tackling a budget deficit that had left the department in a financial lurch.
The payoff of the vision he’s championed with colleagues has resulted in a department staffed with more than 60 faculty and instructors—“some of the most talented educators in the country,” he gushed—teaching 425 majors in seven programs.
"And we're up to 1,400 high school students across the country applying for the 40-some openings available each year in our musical theater and acting BFA programs. Those numbers are off the charts."
Senior directing/stage management major Brian Morgan, stage manager for "Hairspray," hails from Dayton, Ohio. He said he came to Ball State because of the department’s reputation. "It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with this place. Everyone here makes you feel like family."
Befriending Broadway star Sutton Foster
When asked about his proudest accomplishment as chairperson, Jenkins’ face lit up as he talked about the department’s senior talent showcases. The events occur annually in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City, offering casting agents, directors and theater professionals a chance to see Ball State students perform live.
Cast members from the upcoming production of "Hairspray" rehearse in University Theatre. Jenkins will perform as Edna Turnblad.
During the 2005 New York showcase, Jenkins secured Broadway star Sutton Foster as a guest. In the years since, Foster has become a theater instructor at Ball State but, more importantly, a close friend of his. He and his wife, Sarah, even attended her 2014 wedding.
"I don't think any of us expected Sutton to become a part of our department, but she could see Bill’s strengths, and she admired how our faculty were committed to our students," said Michael O’Hara, associate dean of the College of Fine Arts. "She wanted to be a part of that, and Bill built a relationship with her that integrated her talent into the fabric of what we do here."
Department’s niche cultivating new works
Like any true visionary, Jenkins isn’t one to rest on past accomplishments. He’s too busy thinking about the future. One of the ways to further raise the department’s profile is through the development of original works.
"The Circus in Winter," a musical created by Ball State students and Jenkins’ mentor and colleague Beth Turcotte in 2010, is one of the university’s most successful examples of entrepreneurial learning. Building on its development into a national stage production, the department launched Discovery New Musical Theatre Festival. Its first winner, "Mad World," was staged at University Theatre last September and was named this spring as an Outstanding New Work in the Country by the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.
"We've found a nice niche cultivating new work, and it’s a great way for our students and faculty to take a risk and try something that lets them make a real difference in this world."
'He's our role model'
In the short term, Jenkins is also at work overcoming the department’s spacing issues. It has outgrown the space given to it 60 years ago, before theater and dance were even majors.
"We're in seven different buildings," he said. "It limits us, but it’s what makes me spend my days advocating for why we need more room."
Such challenges are worth it for the people involved in his department. "What we have here—it’s not common. These kids, this faculty, this staff … they’re the ones always thinking about others first. All of them are fully invested in this program."
Ask around, though, and you might get a different answer from people in the department about who’s the real star.
"More than anything, Bill is a friend who supports and cares about everyone he’s involved with," said Kip Shawger, professor emeritus of theater. "He’s a great administrator, director and performer. He’s our role model."
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